KU Project Aims to Identify Risk Factors for Toddlers with Autism Who May Remain Minimally Verbal
University of Kansas researchers at the Life Span Institute are working to identify risk factors for toddlers with autism who may remain minimally verbal as they enter school age. While children with autism are likely to have communication delays, most of these children will eventually begin to speak on their own. About a third will remain minimally verbal.
"We're trying to figure out, of the kids that are identified with autism early, who goes on to develop language compared to who stays minimally verbal?” said Nancy Brady, professor and chair at the KU Department of Speech-Language-Hearing: Sciences & Disorders.
The five-year project is led by Brady with researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Vanderbilt University Medical Center and funded with a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Ultimately, the study may provide guidance for therapists to predict which children will remain minimally verbal and benefit most from intensive language intervention at earlier ages.
Suzanne Martell, the project coordinator working with Brady on this research and a former special education teacher, added that minimally verbal children without interventions or access to alternative communication tools are not getting what they need.
“That's the plainest way to put it,” Martell said. “So, if we can identify quickly and early and —even if they don't access verbal language — we get robust communication procedures in place, then we can start training teachers on that.”
One challenge for researchers in this study is finding children younger than age 3 who have an autism diagnosis. While autism can be reliably identified as early as 18 months (about 1 ½ half years), long waiting lists can delay this finding for many families. For this reason, the study includes evaluation for families who haven’t yet been able to obtain a diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder. Testing locations for the study are available in Lawrence, Topeka and the Greater Kansas City area; parents and caregivers can contact the study coordinators to learn more.
As part of the study, investigators will watch children interact with a parent during play to evaluate four different areas: joint attention, comprehension, gesture use and vocalization.
Joint attention occurs when children focus on objects or events in their environments with a communicative partner, such as passing a ball back and forth or looking at pages of a book with someone. Challenges in joint attention is an early sign of autism in children.
Comprehension measures receptive communication skills — or understanding — while gestures and vocalization can identify a child’s attempt at communication even without verbal skills. Investigators are also looking at vocalization to learn if production of vowel or consonant sounds will predict verbal language skills.
Investigators said being able to predict verbal delays related to autism will help improve the child’s future and well-being.
“If the kids can't communicate competently, their behavior will reflect that frustration, and because of that, kids are even more likely to be isolated and segregated,” Brady said. “Kids that don’t develop language are going to have a much harder time in school.
“And especially if they stay minimally verbal, they're going to have a really hard time getting a job or continuing education after high school,” Brady said.
While therapeutic interventions are not a part of this study, being able to understand children’s needs at an early age will help parents and caregivers advocate for early interventions in the future and provide researchers direction on designing new interventions.
"Being able to get robust communication in place for kids who were at risk of not developing spoken language is just going to improve outcomes,” said Olivia Boorom, licensed speech-language pathologist and graduate student working on the study. “This is positive knowledge to have at a young age.”